Rejecting a prosecution request for a severe sentence, a panel of military officers on Thursday sentenced a former driver for Osama bin Laden convicted of a war crimes charge to five and a half years in prison. The sentence means that the first detainee convicted after a war crimes trial here could complete his punishment by the end of this year.
The military judge, Capt. Keith J. Allred of the Navy, had already said that he planned to give the driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, credit for at least the 61 months he has been held since being charged, out of more than six years in all. That would bring Hamdan to the end of his criminal sentence in five months. After that his fate is unclear, because the Bush administration says that it can hold detainees here until the end of the war on terror.
The unexpectedly short sentence came after Hamdan was acquitted on Wednesday of the most serious charge against him, conspiracy, having been convicted only of material support for terrorism. The extraordinary conclusion to the first of the post-Sept. 11 war crimes trials — a case that led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2006 blocking a prior effort to prosecute him — once again raised many of the questions that have long surrounded the Bush administration’s military commission system here, which it plans to use to try another 80 detainees.
The sentence was far less than military prosecutors had sought. Through more than five years of proceedings, prosecutors had pursued a life sentence. Earlier in the day, faced with Hamdan’s acquittal on the most serious charge against him, the prosecutors recommended a sentence of at least 30 years and had said life might still be appropriate.
“Your sentence,” a prosecutor, John Murphy, told the panel, “should say the United States will hunt you down and give you a harsh but appropriate sentence if you provide material support for terrorism.”
Supporters of the military commission system and military prosecutors here said the sentence proved that the Bush administration’s system for trying detainees was legitimate and fair.
David Rivkin, a Washington lawyer who has been a consistent supporter of the administration’s detention policies, said it would be difficult for anyone to criticize the system after the sentence. “This is an enormously compelling indication of how independent the process has been,” Rivkin said.
The prosecutors said they would have preferred a longer sentence, but noted that they had won a conviction. “That’s the way a fair, open system works,” said one of the prosecutors, Maj. Omar Ashmawy. “The sentence isn’t always what the government asks for.”
Defense lawyers described the verdict as a victory propelled by the military officers on the panel, but they said it did not remedy what they have described as the system’s flaws.
“What ultimately happened, in spite of the system, was justice,” said Charles D. Swift, a former Navy lawyer who has forged a close relationship with Hamdan through more than five years of battles as his lawyer.
After just over an hour of deliberations on the sentence, the panel of six senior military officers returned to the windowless tribunal room with their sentence on the single war crimes charge on which they convicted him, providing material support to a terrorist organization.